Great News on the Diversity Front – Plus Twibbons

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 9th, 2012

I’ve been champing at the bit to revisit the topic of including the nation’s many children of diverse races, creeds, and colors in the literature we provide for them. The significance of creating books that are both “windows and mirrors” for young readers, as Mitali Perkins and others have so eloquently put it, cannot be overstated.

If you have followed ShelfTalker for a while, you’ll know by now that this topic is really important to me. (For a post about mainstream children’s books needing a lot more main characters of color, take a look at Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty? For a post linking to the online World Full of Color library—listing 500+ books featuring kids of color where race is not the driving issue of the story—click here. For a post about increasing diversity in the publishing field, check out The Elephant in the Room, a post extra-dear to my heart because of the amazing art created for it by several incredible illustrators. And for a post with some wonderful thoughts about these issues from author Mitali Perkins, publisher Karen Lotz of Candlewick Press, and editor Stacy Whitman of Tu Books, click here.)

For any folks who shut down at the mention of the words “multicultural” and “diversity” (and I wish that didn’t happen, but it sometimes does), I add the pragmatic argument that broadening the scope of what we offer readers not only affects minds and hearts and intellects, but will eventually prove to be vital for publishers, financially speaking, as the population of the U.S. — i.e., future readers — continues to diversify.

So, on to the good news!

The Children’s Book Council’s new CBC Diversity Committee.

Last year, a group of children’s book editors desirous of actively talking about and tackling these issues started gathering for lunch discussions. Over time, this grew into a full-blown initiative spearheaded by the wonderful people at the Children’s Book Council. Last week, I was overjoyed to have a chance to attend the kickoff celebration for the CBC Diversity Committee, which describes itself as “dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and experiences contributing to children’s literature. We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by children’s literature. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s literature.”

To this end, the CBC has kicked off a blog/website that will serve as a clearinghouse for information and resources, and that suggests specific steps we can take to make a real difference.

The party was wonderful. Somehow, I never made it to the snacks, but they looked lovely. It was just too much fun to say hi to everyone and hear how they’d become involved in this project. Robin Adelson, Executive Director of the CBC, had invited the committee members to speak, and it was inspiring and touching (and often funny, and sometimes angering on their behalf) to hear these passionate, articulate book people speak of the experiences in their own lives that led them to love literature, and children’s books, and to crave seeing themselves and others in those books. The CBC website has started to post these stories in its blog; so far, you can read fascinating posts on “How I Got Into Publishing” by Little, Brown editor Alvina Ling and Roaring Brook editor Nancy Mercado, along with the first in what will be a series of posts on “Books That Changed My Life,” the first being Nancy Mercado’s discussion of Nicholasa Mohr’s wonderful Felita. Coming up will be posts by Stacey Barney, Editor, Putnam Books for Young Readers; Antonio Gonzales, Associate Marketing Manager, Author Visits, Scholastic; Connie Hsu, Editor, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; Cheryl Klein, Senior Editor, Author A. Levine Books/Scholastic; Daniel Nayeri, Editor, Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Caroline Sun, Senior Publicity Manager, Integrated Marketing, HarperCollins Children’s Books; Namrata Tripathi, Executive Editor, Atheneum/Simon & Schuster; and Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director, Tu Books/Lee & Low Books.

There was more diversity in the room during the kick-off party than one normally sees in a room full of publishing folks, and that was heartening to see. We still have a long way to go, however, and I am SO grateful to the CBC and all the wonderful publishing committee members for taking this enormous step toward opening up conversations about what works (and what hasn’t yet worked, and how to fix that) when it comes to publishing and marketing books for young people featuring main characters of various races and ethnicities, and recruiting a truly diverse field of publishing and creative professionals.

Want to get involved? Start here and here and then add a Twibbon. The CBC Twibbon is a little CBC Diversity Committee icon that will display as a decoration on your Twitter icon (size and placement are adjustable). A single Tweet will go out to spread awareness, saying you’re supporting the Diversity Committee—although this can be disabled if you don’t want that for some reason—and then you can keep the decoration on your Twitter icon as long as you’d like. There is also a Facebook option, though I haven’t quite figured that one out yet. But you can certainly Like the CBC’s Facebook page and find great photos from the kickoff party there, too.

Also: I continue to invite publishers to send me lists of their recent titles featuring main characters of color where race is not the driving issue of the story so that I can keep the World Full of Color database up to date. I’ve gotten behind for this season, and am looking forward to adding many, many new titles in the next couple of weeks. (Email titles to me at ebluemle at publishersweekly dot com)

The Highlights Foundation’s workshop: Creating an Authentic Cultural Voice

Writers interested in addressing some of these issues in their work will be interested to hear that the Highlights Foundation is offering a Founders Workshop on writing across cultures, called “Creating an Authentic Cultural Voice” April 26-29, led by Mitali Perkins and Donna Jo Napoli, with special guests Alvina Ling and Kathryn Erskine. Some of the questions they’ll be addressing include:

  • Who has the right to write multiculturally?
  • How do we bring humility to our research?
  • What audience are we writing for?
  • Does the term “multicultural literature” match the needs of today’s book market?
  • How is authentic cultural voice achieved?

I loved this quote by Mitali from the Highlights press release: “When to cross a border of race, culture, or power in creating fiction? If a particular community is processing a shared experience of suffering through the healing power of story, maybe it’s time for our ‘outsider’ version to wait. When we have more power in society than our protagonist, it’s always good to ask whether to speak on his or her behalf. If we still feel compelled by the story, we must lean heavily on research, imagination, and empathy. Always, love deeply within that community and listen well. Someone once said that to cross a border of power to tell a story, a writer better live there first, shut up, and hold a bunch of babies.” Amen!

Readers, what ideas do you have for increasing awareness and getting great multicultural books into the hands of kids everywhere?

11 thoughts on “Great News on the Diversity Front – Plus Twibbons

  1. Olivia Boler

    Thank you for this post. It deals with a topic near and dear to my heart. I wish I could add my book, THE FLOWER BOWL SPELL, to your list, but it’s for adults. I am a mixed-race American author (Chinese and Caucasian), and I write about mostly mixed raced characters but my stories don’t usually deal with race directly. Sometimes they do deal with cultural differences, but most often they are jut really character-driven. Thanks again!

  2. SueNeu

    I treasured my mother’s American Indian heritage, and I quickly went through all the books in my schools’ library that featured women or Native Americans, wondering “How can someone like me have a meaningful life? Are there others who feel like me?”
    So glad this committee will help lots of children find those answer in books!

  3. Debbie Reese

    This is great news.

    Your comment that some people don’t like it…. Well, some people hate it. Absolutely hate it and think that it should not be used in the classroom.

    I’m talking about Matt de la Pena’s MEXICAN WHITEBOY being named in the findings of an Administrative Law Judge in Arizona who declared the program using his book to be guilty of violating Arizona’s law that classes cannot promote the overthrow of the US government, promote resentment against a race or class of people, promote ethnic solidarity instead of treating people like individuals and classes being designed primarily for one ethnic group.

    I hope your readers, Elizabeth, are reading my comment.

    And I hope they’re familiar with what happened in Tucson public schools in January…

    For those who don’t know, district administrators went into classrooms and removed books because the board ordered the classes to be “suspended” and so, the books weren’t needed anymore.

    It isn’t one book. Book lovers step up when a book is being challenged. Here, an entire curriculum, with hundreds of books and hundreds of students was shut down. Overnight. Done.

    This will not stay in Arizona. It is well-funded Tea Party politics.

    We can get those books by and about people of color published and written, but if the Tea Party movement isn’t met with enough resistance, multicultural literature is in serious jeopardy.

    1. Kathryn Erskine

      Whoa, this is frightening! Thanks for letting us know, Debbie. Such insidious attacks need to be stopped. Matt’s book is on the recommended reading list I hand out to students and teachers. I hope I get invited to a school in Arizona….

  4. Carol B. Chittenden

    Thank you for the additional stepping stones toward making a difference — a journey of a thousand miles if ever there was one.

  5. Sandy Brehl

    Josie,
    This post is overwhelmingly powerful and useful.
    I’ll tweet it as soon as I finish this comment and then reference it in my blog post next week. The power of picture books to “be a mirror” beyond the surface of the text is incredible, and voices like yours make a world of difference for futre readers.
    Thank you.

  6. Cam B.

    I quicky perused the list you put together — it’s great! Just another title you should consider adding: My Soul Fainted Within Me by Shonda. The main characters are african-american, but the issues in the book (and, boy, are there some serious issues) are non-race related. Great book for young teens.

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